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5 districts consider closing schools
In sign of the times, drastic steps loom

Five local school districts are considering closing buildings, the surest sign to date that Albany's budget mess will be felt in the classroom.

It's also a sign that the annual budget cycle of proposed aid cuts followed by panic, and then restoration of state aid, may have run its course.

"There's not much room for maneuvering in this year's budget," said State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane. "It's very unlikely there will be more money to give out. I'm just being brutally honest."

Brutal it will be. Districts across the state are forced to confront school closings they've put off for years, slashing staff along the way.

In Lockport, the City of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, administrators are looking at closing two schools in each district. Lake Shore could close one this year and a second next year.

Allegany-Limestone in the Southern Tier will close one.

Two in Albany may close, taking 100 jobs with them. Liverpool near Syracuse may close two, at a cost of 130 jobs.

Lower enrollment has long marked these districts for consolidation, but for most it wasn't until the economy's downward spiral that closing schools became a financial necessity.

"Some people are saying that it's a perfect storm because of the economy, reductions in state aid and declining enrollments," said Tonawanda Superintendent Whitney K. Vantine. "All those factors have come to fruition, and this is the time for districts to think about consolidation."

Tonawanda has looked at consolidation for at least five years, and one school was closed last year. Now, after a handful
of studies and committee reviews, the district plans to close its remaining three elementary schools and construct a new one, moving to a single-campus model.

Lake Shore Central School Board members plan to vote Tuesday on a proposal that would close Brant Elementary School this fall and W.T. Hoag Elementary School the following year.

Doing both would save the district about $900,000 over the two-year period, said Superintendent Jeffrey Rabey.

In Lockport recently, hundreds of parents, teachers and taxpayers showed up for a School Board meeting in which Superintendent Terry Ann Carbone recommended DeWitt Clinton and John E. Pound elementary schools be closed, with Pound being repurposed for district storage and universal prekindergarten.

She also said the tax levy might need to jump by more than 10 percent. "We are in a fiscal emergency right now," Carbone said.

"If it wasn't for the people in Albany, we wouldn't have to do what we're doing right now," board President Marietta L. Schrader told parents during a meeting in Lockport last month. "We are at their mercy. It would behoove every single one of you to direct your passion toward contacting our elected officials."

But this year, that may not do much. Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, R-Clarence, said Albany put a Band-Aid on its budget hole last year with federal stimulus dollars and must now confront two years of overspending.

Gov. David A. Paterson recently announced the state's budget hole was worse than previously thought: a whopping $9 billion, up from the $7.4 billion Paterson projected in his budget proposal last month.

"In reality, I don't see where else we can go in the budget to make up $1.1 billion in cuts for education aid," Corwin said. "There are other things we can do, like get rid of some mandates that impose higher costs on districts, giving them more control."

Mandates, like filing frequent state reports or paying construction fees under the Wicks Law, drive up costs unnecessarily, and the Legislature is looking at a proposal to repeal some of those requirements, Corwin said. The savings would be relatively minor for public schools but may help Catholic schools, which don't get state aid.

Catholic schools are protesting an apparent cut in mandated services funding in the form of a permanent delay in reimbursement from the state. For tuition-based schools that are rapidly losing enrollment, it's another hit that makes survival harder.

The State School Boards Association, a powerful lobbying group representing districts across the state, hopes massive aid cuts can be softened a bit. But it won't be enough to stop drastic measures like layoffs and school closings in many districts.

"There will be a lot of pain to go around," said David Albert, association spokesman. "There's going to be layoffs and program cuts. We're hearing from many places that after-school programs are in jeopardy. Some districts may look at consolidating or functional agreements to share services with other districts."

There's no hard data available on school closings, but the association is sending out surveys to see how many layoffs and school closings might stem from Albany's budget crisis. Results will be released before school boards must pass their budgets in April.

Making up deficits through a tax increase was a simple solution in the past. But this year, many school districts look to avoid that because they know residents can't afford it.

"We have worked for years building up our community's education, and now we have to tear the pillars down," said Carbone, the Lockport superintendent, after parents protested their school closing. "It is not comfortable, and it is not right, but we cannot bring to the taxpayers a burden that they cannot bear."

Knowing they cannot expect a bailout from Albany can take its toll on superintendents trying to improve student achievement while keeping down taxes.

"It's pretty stressful," said Rabey, of Lake Shore. "You lose a lot of sleep."

e-mail: bobrien@buffnews.com

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